My husband and I recently attended the World Autism Organization congress, held every four years. This year it was hosted in Houston, Texas.
Although my daily work is filled with the study of conditions like autism and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, I am a hobby paleontologist and what’s generally known as a “dinosaur nerd.” So whenever we come across a city on our travels with a good natural history museum, I insist on a visit. (A warm acknowledgment to my husband who panders to this quirk of mine. 😉 )
So, as with other blog posts, here is a walk through the fossil collection contained in the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
The above Triceratops is a rare specimen, one of the few dinosaur “mummies” in the world. Unlike most dinos, it was found with some of its skin, fossilized, and intact (pictured right panel). The middle panel is myself, my husband, and our dear friend, Steve Edelson, posing with the specimen.
This friendly-looking biped is Acrocanthosaurus, who was one of the top apex predators living in the early Cretaceous period. It also had a short sail on its back made from elongated vertebrae, a feature similar to spinosaurids and dimetrodon.
In the upper left panel is a Gorgosaurus, an early form of tyrannosaur that predated T-rex and grew to only half the T-rex’s size. In the lower left panel is “Bucky” the T-rex. Middle panel is a stegosaurus, one of the swiftest and nimblest of herbivores. They lived in the late Jurassic period and so, ironically, never saw a T-rex. Instead, one of the top apex predators of their time was the Allosaurus. Far right is Edmontosaurus and a youth. Edmontosaurus is the most common type of dinosaur fossil found in North America.
The pterosaurs (Quetzalcoatlus) in the left image were truly remarkable for their size. As you can see they stood taller than Bucky the T-rex and had a 35 foot wingspan. In the upper right panel, you can see a mosasaur, a family of marine reptile that was dominant in the Cretaceous period after the plesiosaurs (bottom right panel) and ichthyosaurs (images below) died out.
The ichthyosaur fossil pictured above was by far my favorite piece in the museum– not only because it’s an ichthyosaur (notice a resemblance to the header in my blog? 🙂 ), but because this was a mother ichthyosaur who was pregnant. This gives us a rare opportunity to learn a little more about these creatures’ life cycles. In this case, this “Jurassic Mom” as she’s called, had died while pregnant with seven “pups.” (I don’t know what one calls baby ichthyosaurs, do you?) You can see one of the pup’s eyes in the middle panel, behind the mother’s ribcage, and a couple “beaks” poking out from around the area of the birth canal in the far right panel. Remarkably, it’s clear that the size of the pups’ heads are HUGE compared to their tiny bodies, a peculiar feature of infant ichthyosaurs. What’s more, ichthyosaurs appear to have given live birth (something not uncommon for early reptiles). Early ichthyosaurs like Chaohusaurus seem to have given birth on land, as suggested by the head-first births that are characteristic of land births, as opposed to water births in which the tail is usually the first to present.
What is any ancient mammal exhibit without a variety of elephants? In the lefthand panel is Platybelodon, the shovel-toothed mastodon. Upper right is another form of mastodon (couldn’t find a label unfortunately) and lower left is the American mastodon.
In these final pictures, to the left you see a rare fossil of an archegosaurus. Affectionally called the “happy puppy,” these armor-plated frog-oids lived before the Permian extinction. To the upper right you can see a terrifying gorgon (Inostransevia), an early group of mammal-like reptiles, all of which died out during the Permian extinction, the greatest extinction event our world has known. Finally, the lower right panel depicts archosaurs (crocodile relatives) that arose after the Permian extinction. In the foreground is the herbivorous archosaur, Desmatosuchus, and in the background the carnivorous archosaur, Postosuchus, the apex predator of its time in the Triassic.
Well, once again I hope you’ve enjoyed getting a glimpse at the wonders of another natural history museum. The Houston Museum of Natural Science is definitely what I would call a “hidden gem” and should you be in the area I highly recommend you drop by and spend a few hours. It also has, among other things, a remarkable gem collection, which my husband particularly enjoyed (he collects gems, I collect fossils).
I imagine my next museum blog post will be in April, following my visit to the Mary Anning Museum in Lyme Regis, UK. Sadly, the first time I visited the museum was closed and under construction, so I’m especially looking forward to walking those Jurassic shores again and finally seeing the museum. Till then!